Monday, November 21, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I consider it inexcusable that as big of a Blade Runner fan as I am, that I’d never gotten around to reading this.  Consider it my love-hate affair with Philip K. Dick.  I love almost all his short stories, but I haven’t really liked many of his novels, or at least not very much.  I know, everyone likes The Man in the High Castle, but I wasn’t fond of it; I didn’t really like Dr. Bloodmoney, I found VALIS too strange even for me, and although I did enjoy A Scanner Darkly and thought We Can Build You was OK, I decided to move on to other things at that point.  Just saying I gave it a stab is all.  Nonetheless, I finally picked this one up and was pleasantly surprised if not entirely won over – and it’s pretty short too, so there you have it.

It’s probably not entirely reasonable to bring up points of comparison to Blade Runner, because these are pretty obviously different takes on the material.  The core of the story is the same, you’ve got Rick Deckard, bounty hunter of androids, who aren’t allowed to be on Earth; they’re used as manual labor, soldiers and sex slaves on offworld colonies, but that’s about all the book and movie have in common besides the character names and job titles.  The novel’s setting is explicitly post-apocalyptic, not just noir; there’s not really a lot of people left on Earth, and many of the ones who are left are “chickenheads”, folks who have had exposure to fallout and have suffered mental/physical impairment as a result.  Most of the best and brightest have gone offworld or died in the war.  It’s implied that the ones who stayed and are more or less of normal capacity have pretty bad emotional issues.  And you get a touch of that typical Dick surrealism in that all the men walk around wearing designer lead codpieces, although if there was really that much residual radiation that this was advisable then that probably wouldn’t be the first thing I’d want to protect anyway (although putting one on Harrison Ford might have been pretty funny, I guess they didn’t have one in the prop department or something).  Another effect is that most of the non-human life on Earth has died, so having any sort of real animal is a status symbol and harming one is deeply shocking.

The action opens on Deckard as he’s having something of an argument with his wife, who is using something called a “mood organ” to give herself periods of depression and anxiety.  I say something of an argument because they’re both using the mood-altering device to affect their mental states; Deckard at first thinks about dialing up his anger on the device but thinks better of it when his wife threatens to retaliate, so they both eventually just dial it down and he goes to work.  I get it, this bounty hunter of human-like machines is at the mercy of emotions he gets from an external source.  Kind of heavy handed, although handled in a pretty funny manner.  There’s also the issue of Mercerism, which is a quasi-religious belief system that allows the user to be with Mercer as he gets killed by an angry mob, and an ongoing and unresolved plot about a somewhat sinister media personality who appears to make more programming per day than there are hours in the day.

Deckard may be a bounty hunter but in the story the androids are actually pretty sociopathic.  They aren’t capable of emotional response to the suffering of others and that’s the basis of the test that can detect them.  However, one of the newer models, the Nexus 6, does appear to be able to have at least some regard for other androids, since one of them seduces Deckard and tries to get him to stop bounty hunting.  Which he doesn’t.  And this doesn’t seem all that bad because although the androids that he’s after haven’t exactly done anything wrong, they’re also pretty unpleasant, since they basically trick a lonely chickenhead into giving them shelter and don’t think much about tormenting the weak.  This Roy Baty isn’t a tragic character, and his desires don’t drive the plot.  He’s basically just a jerk.  In a way this is too bad, because I thought Dick might be trying to mirror human bounty hunters who have regard for biological life but kill synthetic life without remorse and question whether we have the right to judge androids as sociopaths, but in fact the androids really don't seem to be very pleasant at all.

I didn’t love this book.  It has a couple of fundamental problems in my opinion, one of which is that Dick’s real strength as an author is in mind-bending prose and weirdness, not action; so when there are action sequences they tend to fall flat as Deckard just shoots androids and kills them.  This is also a rare case in which I think that the book should have been longer, as its size makes some of the plot threads terminate abruptly.  One of the stronger scenes is when Deckard finds himself in a police station he didn’t know existed which turns out to be staffed by androids, and this plot basically just drops, and the same is true of some of the other subplots like Mercer.

However, I did like it more than I thought I would, primarily because of the dark humor and the matter-of-factness of the plot.  Dick was on his game here and creating nice point-counterpoints on what it means to be human exactly, which was his major area of expertise.  I’d say that the characters were flat, but that’s the point, I think.  Anyway, fairly short and enjoyable, so it’s worth a look.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan

Sorry I’ve been so late with the updates; had some sort of plague and then had to take care of my plagued family, and that plus getting my work in does tend to take time.  Anyway, this will contain some spoilers for The Steel Remains, as this is a sequel.

Richard K. Morgan, British SF author, hardly needs an introduction.  Since jumping onto the scene with Altered Carbon in 2002 he’s been churning out books of better than average quality at an impressive rate.  Altered Carbon plus its two sequels is one of my all-time favorite SF series, and although awards bodies were sort of stingy to them I think they’ll be strong contenders for lasting the test of time.

If you’ve never read them, the Altered Carbon trilogy deals with the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs, a memetically-programmed ex super soldier turned (variously) private eye, mercenary, and freelance vigilante who is disenchanted with his government and tries to act by his own morality in a world full of corruption and double dealing.  Morgan’s other works explore similar themes; Market Forces discusses a business executive who happens to have to fight other executives to death while immersed in a world full of corruption and double dealing, and Black Man (titled Thirteen in the US) deals with a genetically modified super soldier who is disenchanted with his government and tries to act by his own morality, etc.  I guess he’s sticking to what works for him.  At any rate, the Altered Carbon trilogy achieves greatness and the other two aren’t exactly bad, although frankly I didn’t like Market Forces all that much and thought that the first three quarters of Black Man was pretty mediocre before picking up substantially toward the end.

The Steel Remains, which came out a couple of years ago, was the first book of a new trilogy entitled A Land Fit For Heroes which is something of a departure for Morgan.  Okay, as a matter of fact the main character Ringil is a famous ex-soldier turned disenchanted veteran who tries to act by his own morality in a world full of corruption and double dealing.  Nonetheless.  Unlike Morgan’s previous works this one is straight fantasy, although it may take place on a far future Earth (possibly even in the same universe as Altered Carbon; there's a 'god' by the name of 'Dakovash') and its magic is indistinguishable from technology that the characters don’t fully understand.  Ringil makes a pretty interesting character.   He is a homosexual but lives in an incredibly repressive culture.  His father is an important man and is thus able to save a teenage Ringil from suffering horrific execution alongside his lover when they’re caught, although as one might expect this makes their relationship pretty spotty after that, the father thinking that Ringil’s ungrateful and Ringil believing that his father probably could have done something to save both of them.  Ringil’s also got the feeling that he personally is a coward and should have taken the same punishment, although he’s practical enough to realize that it really wouldn’t have made much difference if he had.  So with this combination of aggression and self-loathing it makes sense that he volunteered to go to war when one broke out (with either monsters or aliens, it’s not entirely clear), and he turned out to be enough of a survivor to become quite good at it indeed.

This is all in the backstory, though, since the real events of that novel open with Ringil slowly going to seed in a backwater town where they don’t ask many questions about his sexuality, drinking too much, telling war stories, and lowering his standards.  Then his mother asks him to rescue one of his cousins from slavers, which he does, and inadvertently discovers that this is connected to a proposed invasion of the world by what are essentially elves, portrayed in Pratchett style as psychopathic fashionistas.   Ringil enters a torrid affair with one and then stops the invasion anyway, along with the help of some old war buddies of his.

The friends are pretty interesting but sort of woefully underused in The Steel Remains.  One, Egar, is essentially a stereotypical barbarian, who decided that hanging out on the steppes in a yurt wasn’t really all there was to life and jumped at the change when he heard that you could make lots of money as a mercenary in the big city.  This actually worked out well for him, and then he parlayed all the cash and experience into becoming the chief of his tribe, although mostly this meant that he spent his time sleeping with stupid young women, since he basically caught too much sophistication to truly go home but never really got all that civilized.  He was pretty interesting and didn’t get enough screen time.  The other friend, Archeth Indamaninarmal (and doesn’t spell check love that) is half-human, half-Kiriath (sort of dwarves/technomages/etc. and otherwise absent), a lesbian, and names her throwing knives.  Also pretty cool and got a little more screen time than Egar, mostly doing political-type stuff but also stabbing people occasionally.

I mentioned in my last review that the book required previous knowledge of the series, and you can double down on that here.  Morgan throws you right into it and God help you if you don’t remember everything that happened in the previous one.  I recalled most of the big details, but some of it I just had to say, okay, there was probably a reason why Ringil wanted to get revenge against that particular person, I just can’t remember what it was.

I was prepared to like this book a lot since I was hoping that it would fulfill the promises made by the first volume, which actually created a fairly interesting venue for the surprisingly well-developed characters and then just didn’t ever quite catch fire for me.  So I thought that maybe the second volume would really hit it out of the park and make up for the meh feeling I had about the first one.  Sadly, no.  Morgan's writing is compelling, there’s a lot that should be going on here, and yet it failed to connect once again.

This may have something to do with being the middle book of a trilogy, since there’s a lot more setup than resolution here, and then you end up reading a lot of backstory about characters you didn’t remember all that well to begin with and then they don’t get around to having the promised adventure.  This is too bad, since the promised adventure sounds pretty cool.  It’s the elves again, and they may be rallying back to the world at the side of an undead sorcerer on a mysterious quasi-real-disappearing island.  Archeth spends a lot of time getting an expedition fitted out to this island but they never actually get around to going, there’s a bit of sidetracking and the narrative has to get all the three Musketeers back together again, throw in a few daring escapes, couple of brutal killings, etc.

It’s intense, to almost a ludicrous extent.  Morgan does excel in writing action, but this gets turned up to eleven here in scenes of violence, sex, violent sex and sexual violence.  I’m neither faint hearted nor squeamish (for a good cause, anyway), and yet the frequent murders, tortures, executions, rapings and desecrations get to be excessive after a while.  In one sense I get it, this is a response by Morgan (and other folks like George R.R. Martin) to attempt to show the dark sides of fantasy staple cultures which get conveniently left out by traditional fantasy literature; but done to this extent you wonder how there could even be anyone left in the whole world after six months of this Grand Guignol.  It also makes it really, really hard to root for anyone at all.  Archeth’s people apparently felt that one particular empire was the best hope for civilization on whatever planet this takes place on, but the Emperor is a real jackhole and likes to feed his political opponents to carnivorous octopuses.  Ringil starts the book fighting against slavery, but he’s pretty pathetic at actually saving anyone and lets his mercenary band commit some pretty horrible atrocities.  You get the sense that the world might actually be better off if the elves did take over, although they are also pretty free with the war crimes and genocide.

The two characters of Archeth and Egar do get more page time in this one.  Egar gets a couple of action scenes but primarily exists to get into trouble.  I still kind of like him, it’s too bad.  Archeth continues to be interesting and gets to do a lot more this time.  She’s only half human and is a couple of hundred years old at this point, it gives her a very unique perspective and she also gets to deal with the other most interesting characters, a trio of artificial intelligences made by her people who have their own agendas and also appear to know what’s going on.

At least someone does, since a lot of the action takes place in the Grey Places, where everything is a little wonky and other potential realities are always right next door.  Ringil spent some time there in the previous novel (it’s where the elves hang out, and it’s what makes them so screwy) and plenty more in this one.  There was a prophecy in the first one which suggested that Ringil himself might be some sort of embryonic Dark Lord in the making – an interesting enough conceit – and in this one he appears to be rocking some sorcery and periodically runs across supernatural beings who make some gnomic statements and move on.  I still don’t really know what the deal is here and I feel that this isn’t really acceptable at this point in a trilogy.

So, I can’t really recommend that anyone run out and get this one.  Still, it’s very well written and contains some compelling setpieces, so I’m not really that down on it either.  The third volume may very well pay for all, but at this point I’d suggesting waiting to see before reading the first two.